Grouse magic at Stanhope

Two all-time records for a Durham moor, by Mike Barnes.

2012 was a pretty good year for grouse. Whilst there were a few moors recording an average return, others did exceptionally well. One of these was undoubtedly Stanhope, where the record was spectacularly broken with 5,880 brace for the season. 2011 was a new record at 4,250, which in turn topped the all-time record of 3,670 in 1973. 

This is premier league grouse country – neighbours include Muggleswick, Newbiggin, Bollihope, Wolsingham, Hunstanworth, and Purdey Award winner Michael Stone's Weardale and Egglestone moors. Stanhope, a Co. Durham market town of 5,000 population, is surrounded by North Pennines moorland, part of the second largest area of Natural Beauty in England and Wales.

The river Wear runs through it, and Weardale itself has a long history of lead mining and grouse shooting. The two seem to go together. Being there, one can hardly take in the scale of this wonderful moorland landscape, and the mind boggles at how a railway track (long gone, but traces still to be seen) could have been built to take lead, extracted from the mines here,
to Stockton.

The moor belonged to the Percy family, who having settled on Burncastle as their grouse HQ, leased Stanhope out to a local syndicate. However it came on the market again in the late 90s and one of those who knew it had the potential to be good, was Martin George, who for 20 years up until 1999 ran Croglin in Cumbria, a moor with some pretty impressive contours (‘heart attack hill' comes to mind).  “We had some good years there,” he explained, “but I had to recognise I wouldn't be getting younger and luckily someone was interested in buying it. I was also aware that Stanhope was on the market, which would mean I would be swapping 90" annual rainfall for 30", so it made sense to move. I was also excited by the prospect.

“In 1990 the RSPB had bought Geltsdale, the moor next door to Croglin, which meant there would be no keepering on my neighbours' ground, so that was further incentive to take on Stanhope.” However, purchase of the 7,000-acre (6,000 of heather) Stanhope shooting lease would not be straightforward – it belonged to an eight-member syndicate. “The fathers of syndicate members were all friends who had got together to take on the moor, but inevitably each of their respective sons would in all probability want something different.” But through agent Anthony Scott Harden he successfully negotiated a lease.

All started well. On the final day of the season a team of his friends shot 100 brace. The 10-year average was 1,800 brace, compared to Croglin's 1,100 – all looked set fair. However, grouse don't read game books and bag sizes. The first five years saw the average drop to 1,200. “We had one or two very poor springs, then a disease problem in 2004. It was not looking very good and we had to see how we could improve matters,” said Martin.

A stepping up of vermin control and the introduction of the then ‘new' medicated grit was a key starting point. Gamekeeper Scott Jopling arrived from Bollihope two years ago, and his first season was a record breaker. “It was not entirely down to me,” he said. “Everything had been put into place by the time I came. But it was extraordinary – as the season progressed there seemed to be more and more birds.”

So what is the secret? “Hard work,” he grinned. “Last year we accounted for 17,000 rabbits, and expect another 10,000 this year.” Rabbits of course attract stoats, which are enemy number one, taking both hen grouse and chicks off the nest.

Martin adds: “Rabbits had also grazed heavily on the heather and marked the ground badly, particularly at the eastern end of the moor. The latest grit is clearly also working. Some people thought that disease was in the grit trays, so we now turn the trays over and put the grit on top. It seems to have worked. We stopped shooting on November 24, leaving a bigger stock than last year, and with a very low worm count.”

On a counter note he adds: “But will they get immune, or will there be another disease outbreak? Some are talking of bulgy eye, though I haven't come across it as yet. And I hope not to.”

Martin shot his first grouse in the mid-70s, having served his apprenticeship by carrying an empty .410 for two seasons on the family shoot at Blatherwycke, Northamptonshire and has been hooked ever since. He comes from a shooting family – his grandfather Frank George's Harper Brook labs and springers were handled by Jack and Keith Chudley to FTCh status on numerous occasions.

The family business was Weetabix, founded by Frank, who subsequently added Alpen and Whitworth (flour milling and dried fruit). Weetabix was sold in 2004 to an American private equity company, and again last year to Chinese owners (state-backed Bright Food).

But Martin has taken Whitworth Holdings from strength to strength, building two big new mills to meet demand. He mixes business easily with pleasure – a combination of energy and attention to detail enables him to run and enjoy three very successful shoots, for in addition to Stanhope and Blatherwycke, he also has the four-acre Barnby broad in Suffolk. His son Michael has taken this on-board and overseen a very impressive 10-year restoration programme. The project was shortlisted for a Purdey Award. It is a conservationist's paradise and offers three or four duck flights per season, and a few pheasants. Plus a fascinating mix of other species.

Martin is very entertaining company with a mischievous sense of humour – he is also a generous host, last autumn laying on a party of two consecutive days of driven grouse shooting for close friends to mark his 70th birthday.

For his last big birthday, Michael treated him to a pair of Asprey 20 bores, which he now uses for all of his shooting. They are choked half and full, and he favours no. 7 cartridges. “After shooting 16 bore Purdeys for 40 years, it took me a little while to adapt, but now I shoot with nothing else. I can shoot grouse with them quite reasonably,” he says. In fact he shoots the guns brilliantly, especially at grouse. “Grouse are wild and unpredictable – I guess this type of shooting suits me.”
He is very much looking forward to the new season and, weather permitting, he has good reason to. While he saw the potential of Stanhope, the last couple of years have exceeded all expectations. But what about the future of grouse shooting? “We have to be mindful of other interests,” he says, “and be more pro-active in getting our message understood and living at peace with the neighbour. Moor owners should do all that they can to have a hen harrier on their piece of ground.”

BROTHERHOOD OF KEEPERS

Headkeeper at Stanhope is 44- year-old Scott Jopling, who is part of a gamekeeping dynasty.
His brother Ian is part-time at Bollihope, and his wife Vicky's brother is Jeremy Wearmouth, headkeeper at Gunnerside. Their son Lee is a beatkeeper at Wemmergilll, nephew Brandon Wearmouth is a keeper at Egglestone, while another nephew Jimmy Brough is headkeeper at Rosedale and Westerdale. Nephew Michael Wearmouth is a beatkeeper at Rosedale and Westerdale, while another nephew Ben Wearmouth is beatkeeper at Muggleswick. Brother-in-law Peter Warwick is a beatkeeper at Gunnerside.

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